Were You There?

work_jwjr

(picture of John W. Work Jr.)

“WERE YOU THERE?”

“And they bring Him unto the place Golgotha…and they crucified Him” (Mk. 15:22-24)

     INTRO.:  A song which reminds us of the fact that they took Jesus to Golgotha and crucified Him is “Were You There?” (#693 in Hymns for Worship Revised).  The text and the tune are both anonymous.  This traditional spiritual is an American folk hymn which originated from slavery days among the Afro-American people in the United States.  Spirituals began somewhere before the middle of the nineteenth century and were sung by slaves in their social and religious gatherings.  They were born in the hearts of blacks who found that their singing eased the burden of their labors and were passed on for generations from parents to children to grandchildren without being written down.  Over time, the melodies were shaped and reshaped as different individuals and families sang them in their own way.  Little was done to write the Negro spirituals down until after the Civil War.  The first definite step was Slave Songs of the United States edited by William Francis Allen, ‎Charles Pickard Ware, and ‎Lucy McKim Garrison in 1867.  The world began to hear more about this body of songs beginning in 1871 as the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, TN, toured this nation, England, and Europe, singing spirituals to raise money for the school.  Jubilee Hall on the Fisk campus is a monument to these early singers who taught the world their songs.

Other schools such as Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute soon followed.  The origin of “Were You There?” is obscure.  Its first known printing was in Old Plantation Hymns, published in 1899 at Boston, MA, by William E. Barton (1861-1930).  The original four stanzas in that work were as follows:

  1. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

  1. Were you there when they nailed him to the cross? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?

  1. Were you there when they pierced him in the side? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

  1. Were you there when the sun refused to shine? (Were you there?)

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

The stanza regarding the resurrection has been added by later hymnbook editors.  The modern adaptation and harmonization are taken from Folk Songs of the American Negro, published at Nashville, TN, in 1907 by Frederick Jerome Work (1879-1942) and his older brother John Wesley Work, Jr., who was born in Nashville on Aug. 6, 1871, though some sources give 1872 and others 1873.  They were sons of Samuella and John Wesley Work who was director of a church choir, some of whose members were also in the original Fisk Jubilee Singers.  Educated at Fisk University where he organized singing groups, John Jr. graduated in 1895. He then married Agnes Haynes in 1899, taught in Tullahoma, TN, studied at Harvard University, and worked in the library at Fisk, before taking an appointment as a Latin and history instructor at Fisk in 1904, while training the Jubilee Singers.

Working with his wife and his brother Frederick, John began collecting slave songs and spirituals, publishing them as New Jubilee Songs (1901) and Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907).  The latter included the first publication of the spiritual “Go, Tell It OnThe Mountain.”  Also he established the music publishing company, Work Brothers and Hart.  Fifty years ago, spirituals such as this were largely used as fun songs at banquets, parties, and community singings.  Only in more recent decades have they been found in hymnbooks used by white congregations where their distinctive characteristics have brought a rich and rewarding dimension.  This is perhaps the best-known and widely-sung of them.  Many arrangements of both words and music have been made.  John Wesley Work, Jr. resigned his post at Fisk in 1923 and then served as president of Roger Williams University in Nashville, until his death died in there on Sept. 7, 1925.  He and his wife had six children, of whom John Wesley Work III (1901-67) also worked as the director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and as a song collector and composer who edited a comprehensive collection of 230 African-American folk songs, religious and secular in 1940.

Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, the song has appeared in the1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1965 Christian Hymns No. 3 edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1975 Supplement to the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 originally edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1977 Special Sacred Selections edited by Ellis J. Crum; the 1978 Hymns of Praise edited by Reuel Lemmons; the 1978/1983  Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; the 1990 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church and the 2010  Songs for Worship and Praise both edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; and the 2012 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs edited by Steve Wolfgang et. al.; in addition to Hymns for Worship.

The wording below takes the original phrase of each stanza and expounds upon it.

I. In stanza 1, we are told that Jesus was crucified

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when the blood and water poured?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when they watched with one accord?

  1. The basic message of first-century preaching was Christ and Him crucified: 1 Cor. 2:1-2
  2. At Christ’s crucifixion, there poured out of His body blood and water: Jn. 19:34b-37
  3. While Jesus was being crucified, He was watched by the soldiers: Matt. 27:35-36

II. In stanza 2, we are told that Jesus was nailed upon a tree

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?

Were you there when He died for you and me?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when He hung for all to see?

  1. The word “tree” is often used to symbolize the cross upon which Jesus died for us: 1 Pet. 2:24
  2. In doing this, Jesus suffered and died for us, for you and me: 1 Pet. 3:18
  3. And this was done publicly, for all to see: Matt. 27:38-44

III. In stanza 3, we are told that when Jesus died the sun refused to shine

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Were you there when He bore your sins and mine?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when they gave Him gall and wine?

  1. When Jesus was on the cross, there was darkness from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, as if the sun refused to shine: Matt. 27:45
  2. While on the cross, Jesus was dying for our sins: 1 Cor. 15:3
  3. In an attempt to ease His suffering, He was offered wine and gall but refused it: Matt. 27:32-34

IV. In stanza 4, we are told that Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear

Were you there when they pierced Him with a spear?

Were you there when “Forgive them” God did hear?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when His death was drawing near?

  1. To see if he was dead, a soldier pierced His side with a spear: Jn. 19:31-34a
  2. But before He died, He said, “Father, forgive them”: Lk. 23:34
  3. Eventually, death drew near as He commended His spirit to God: Lk. 23:46

V. In stanza 5, we are told that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?

Were you there when they sealed Him in the gloom?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when they thought they’d brought His doom?

  1. Following His death, His body was laid in a tomb: Lk. 23:50-52
  2. The Jewish leaders then sealed Him in the gloom: Matt. 27:66
  3. In so doing, His enemies thought that they had brought His doom: Matt. 27:62-65

VI. In stanza 6, we are told that Jesus came forth from the grave

Were you there when He rose up from the grave?

Were you there when He showed His power to save?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble!

Were you there when He walked out of the cave?

  1. However, the resurrection demonstrated His divine Sonship to the world: Rom. 1:3-4
  2. It also confirmed His power to save His people from their sins: Matt. 1:21
  3. Our faith is based on the evidence that He walked alive out of that cave: Matt. 27:1-6

CONCL.:  A song such as this is more than a simple Biblical narrative about the death of Christ.  It removes distances of time and space to make us personally related to the event.  Our minds become focused on Christ’s crucifixion, suffering, and resurrection as the song asks “Were You There?”

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